How to think about social media

Why social media is part of the solution not part of the problem.

How should the use of social media be conceptualized? And how should it be regulated? Can it be regulated? One approach, which seems to be current with policy-makers and has been raised at the Leveson inquiry, is to suggest that social media is just an adjunct of the traditional mainstream media. On this view, blogging and the use of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are entirely capable of directed regulation; the only question is how it is done.

However, such thinking may well be misconceived. It is looking at a new phenomenon and straining it to fit into categories which may no longer be valid. Although one can always over-state the novelty of any development and exaggerate its potential impact, there is a better way of thinking about social media than seeing it as just something shiny and new to regulate. It may not even be capable of specific regulation in any meaningful way.

Social media is about citizens connecting with each other instantly and casually using the internet. It does not matter where one is physically located. There is no need for elaborate telephone and video conferences. No special subscription or permission is required. As long as one has access to the internet then, in principle, there can be immediate contact and the sharing of useful or interesting information.

Most of these online discussions will be trivial in terms of politics and media issues. But social media provides the means by which clusters of like-minded individuals can easily swap ideas and scrutinise data on public matters. In this way, social media users can hold politicians and media outlets to account in a manner not possible -- or conceivable -- until a few years ago. Instead of a politician saying something forgotten the day after, or a reporter's bylined piece being in next day's fish-and-chip paper, those involved in social media can pore over details and make connections weeks and months later. Transgressions can be linked to and accumulated. A speech or a byline can now come back and haunt you long after you have "moved on".

As long as there are those willing to promote such accountability then politicians and media professionals can now be subjected to on-going and sometimes intense examination. The effect of this may be to make those with political and media power more responsible; it will certainly mean that it is more straight-forward and more likely that individuals can be called out for any wrong-doing. On this basis it is not those in power who will be regulating social media, but social media regulating those in power.

Once social media is understood as an advanced form of active citizenship then it can become part of the solution to the problem of abuses of political and media power; not part of the problem to be addressed by regulation. Regardless of the self-serving caricatures promoted by some in the media, the record of bloggers and tweeters compares rather well to tabloid excesses. In the medium- to longer- term, it is clear that those in mainstream media who work with social media will tend to produce better output.

Regulation is just not about formal "black-letter codes" with sanctions and enforcement agencies. Regulation also means simply that things are done better than they otherwise would be: for example, when one "regulates one's own conduct". Bloggers and others in social media are willing and able to call out media excesses and bad journalism. The reaction is immediate and can be brutally frank. They are sometimes wrong, as are formal regulators. But they can take time and allow the media to produce better, more well-informed stories.

The formal regulation of social media may be futile -- anyone can publish to the internet if they want to. The individuals are rightly subject to the law of the land in doing so. It is difficult to see how there could be any formal regulation of social media which would have any significant bite against a determined wrong-doer. One may as well seek to regulate everyday talk with a Conversation Regulatory Authority. But encouraging the mainstream media to constructively engage with social media users is perhaps one good route to better standards of content.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Budget 2017: What announcements will Philip Hammond make?

What will the first budget after Brexit hold for the economy?

This spring’s Budget - set to be announced on Wednesday 8 March 2017 - will be forced to confront the implications of last June's Brexit vote, along with dealing with issues of reliance on consumer spending, business rates and government borrowing. The government also (quietly) announced on Monday night that it will be asking ministerial departments to outline cuts up to 6 per cent, a potential nod for what’s to come next week.

All these things, along with the fact the Chancellor Philip Hammond is scrapping the spring Budget, meaning this announcement should be an interesting one.

The big story at the moment focuses on borrowing. The Resolution Foundation has predicted that healthier-than-expected tax revenues and the lack of a Brexit effect so far will lower Budget borrowing forecasts by £29bn between 2015-16 and 2020-21. 

The FT reports a possible £3bn reduction in borrowing, to £67bn. They also pin this optimistic prediction to higher-than-average self-assessment tax receipts, after changes in the taxation of dividends.

The Chancellor will potentially stick to the three key changes he made from George Osborne’s former financial commitments, according to The Sun. These consist of not predicting a surplus in 2019/20, slightly relieving the cap on welfare spending and no longer committing to reducing debt. The paper also predicts he’ll announce a change to the controversial business rates that were recently released, that could leave “shopkeepers and publicans clobbered with tax hikes of up to 400 per cent".

What do we know for sure?

The government has announced a few key changes in in advance of the Budget.

  1. The Spring Budget 2017 will be the final Budget held during springtime
  2. Finance Bill will follow the Budget, as it does now
  3. From 2018 "Legislation day" will move to the summer
  4. An Autumn Budget means tax changes will be announced well in advance of the start of the tax year
  5. 2018 will see the first Spring Statement